A long simmering dispute between Montgomery County's professional firefighters and the volunteer fire departments they work for - a dispute that could end up costing the county some $3 million annually - surfaced unexpectedly this week in the state legislature.
At the center of the controversy was a measure that would have made the county's 561 paid firefighters ineligible to receive overtime pay under the state's wage and hour law. At present, almost all of these firefighters work at least a 48-hour week, eight hours more than the state standard.
And, although the professional firefighters are legally considered employes of the independently incorporated volunteer fire departments, it is the county that gives the volunteer departments the money to cover the paid men's salaries.
Thus, if these 561 firefighters were declared eligible to receive overtime payments, the county would be footing the bill - which could run as high as $55,000 a week, according to county estimates.
The whole murky question was left in limbo, however, by the actions of the county's legislative delegation.
As quickly as it was presented with the issue this week, Montgomery County's delegation put it aside. With about 30 paid firefighters looking on, they voted 13 to 4 not to consider until next year the legislation making paid firefighters ineligible for overtime pay.
County officials had sent documents to the delegation in support of the bill, but no county official actually spoke on the question.
The whole issue of overtime pay came into focus for the first time about six weeks ago as a result of a Circuit Court decision in a lawsuit brought by the union representing the professional firefighters.
On Jan. 20, Judge Joseph M. Mathias ruled that, although their pay was derived from county tax dollars, the professional firefighters in the county should be considered employes of the independent volunteer fire departments, and not employes of the county.
Within a few days of that ruling, John Walsh, attorney for the International Association of Firefighters Local 1684, amended the original lawsuit saying that, if his clients were in fact private and not public employes, then they were covered by the provisions of the state wage and hour law and should not work more than 40 hours a week without being paid overtime.
This new twist in the protracted, three-year-old lawsuit left both the volunteer departments and the county in an awkward position. Both groups had fought the union's legal efforts to have the paid firefighters declared county employes.
If the firefighters, as private employes, were considered eligible to receive overtime pay, however, the earlier efforts of the county and the volunteer departments could backfire, leaving them liable for $3 million in annual overtime payments if they continued their practice of working the paid men on 48-hour weekly shifts.
The response to this new development was two-pronged. On the one hand, legal papers were filed last week in Montgomery County circuit court rebutting the union's overtime claims.
At the smae time, Avon B. Chisholm - an aide to Acting Gov. Blair Lee III who doubles as a lobbyist for the volunteer fire departments and serves as a volunteer with the Hyattstown department - pushed to get legislation introduced nullifying the claim of the professional firefighters.
Both Chisholm and state Commissioner of Labor and Industry Harvey Epstein, the man responsible for enforcing the state wage and hour law, two weeks ago asked Montgomery County's senators to introduce the legislation making firefighters ineligible for overtime pay. This the county senators did, on the last possible day that they could.
At this week's delegation meeting, however, Democratic Sens. Victor L. Crawford and Charles Gilchrist made it clear that they introduced the bill only so that it could get a hearing, not because they supported its provisions.
In fact, Gilchrist told the delegation at its hearing Monday night that, "It would be inequitable to preserve a situation where the paid firefighters are told they're not county employes and have no (county) benefit rights on that hand and then turn around and tell them they have no rights on the other hand as private employes."
Despite the delegation's action of voting not to consider the question, it seems unlikely that any actual overtime payments will be required in the near future, according to observers.
"Nobody's going to pay (overtime) just because this bill wasn't passed," said Warren Isman, chief of the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services. "Not right away, anyway. But somewhere along the line, somebody's going to be responsible."
Isman and state labor commissioner Epstein said, however, that final resolution of the overtime question could well be delayed until final resolution of the remaining issues in the suit between the firefighter's union and the volunteer departments.